Joseph Brodsky’s 80th birthday, and the day he arrived late for his talk at the Commonwealth Club

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On California Street, San Francisco (Photo by Grisha Freidin on https://thenoiseoftime.blogspot.com/2020/01/an-afternoon-with-joseph-brodsky-in-san.html?m=1

On May 24, Joseph Brodsky would have turned 80 years old. You know that. I wrote about it already, here. But someone else beat us all to it: Grisha Freidin, Stanford Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures emeritus, made his eightieth birthday post in January on his blog The Noise of Time. The month of death was momentarily confused with the month of birth. Perhaps this post will be the final word. He writes:

On the way back to his room, I asked him to pose for me and my new Pentax camera, with my favorite wide-angle lens. The son of a photographer, he appreciated the camera, played with it a little and took a few shots (none came out well). He and I loved the quirky fog city, traversed it on foot on many occasions, and had a warm spot for its jerky cable car, especially for the fact that it was totally legit to ride on its footboard. An unquestioned taboo in Russia, it gave us a frisson to avail ourselves of a harmless San Franciscan libertinism. I was able to take this shot just as a cable car was crossing behind him.

Then they realized he was half an hour late leaving for the Commonwealth Club – and that’s not counting traffic. No one arrives late at the August Commonwealth Club – not if you’re scheduled to speak. The Russian poet arrived forty minutes late. Everyone had waited. 

This year Joseph would have turned 80. I miss him as much as a quarter century ago when I first learned of his death. I had recently mailed him a pair of Soviet Navy undershirts — they were all the rage among boys in our childhood — wishing him and his wife happy sailing together. He was touched and sent me a post-card with a poem, in English. The verse was addressed to me and invoked my book about our other favorite Joseph, Osip Mandelstam (A Coat of Many Colors). The very language of the poem alluded to an underlying motif in our friendship: the love of English we shared and our life-long dedication to the cause of making it our own. Our friendship, in fact, may have begun back in the 1960s in Moscow over a discussion of Auden’s poetry. He began reciting “Memory of W. B. Yeats” in his vatic baritone, and I finished it for him in my own Muscovite high-pitched voice.

Read the whole thing here. Bonus prize: you get to see the post card with the poem Joseph Brodsky wrote to him on it.


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